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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
Mary Roberts—Her Sampler


THERE LIES BEFORE ME IN THE LAMP-LIGHT an open portfolio, with five-and-twenty old samplers in it, and I have only to close my eyes to catch a glimpse of the long ago.

It is summer-time, and the air is full of the scent of lavender, rosemary, and blood-red roses, that nod in the corners of an old garden. Through the open lattice window of a low-roofed cottage float the dulcet notes of a spindle-legged spinnet, and in the cool shade of a beech tree on the lawn there sits a little girl, with her canvas and her silks, sewing her sampler.

She has nearly come to the end of her labours, for this is the line that she is slowly stitching now: Mary Roberts finished this Sampler, March 1760, aged 10 years. And above the wilderness of mathematical trees and shrubs there is sewn with an infinite care this motto:—

Jesus, permit Thy gracious name to stand
As the first effort of an infant hand,
And while her fingers on the canvas move
Engage her tender thoughts to seek Thy love,
With Thy dear children let her have apart
And write Thy name Thyself upon her heart.

Many a time had little Mary shed tears of vexation under the beech tree on the lawn, when the needle persisted in going astray, and the dreamy sound of the spinnet tempted her to lay down her work on the grass, that she might lose herself in a summer dream of the green-robed fairies that folk said had their dwelling in the glen above the village. But when she was just beginning to enjoy the dreams of a drowsy summer afternoon, her Conscience came walking down the garden-path between the gillyflowers and roses in the shape of a high-waisted lady in lilac and white, with a French grammar in her hand. Then poor little Mary would start in her dreaming and begin the dreary stitching again, until she came to think that governesses and samplers were the most weary-wailly things on earth.

Then the years passed by. The lady in lilac and white had vanished for ever. Mary Roberts still sat under the beech tree on the summer afternoons, but she was old and frail, and the hair that had once been so golden was now as white as snow. There was little or no change in the garden. The scent of lavender and roses still drugged the air. The sound of the spinnet, only a little fainter and mellower, came through the open window as it had done long, long ago. But Mary Roberts was dozing in her chair, and another golden-haired child was sitting on a stool by her grandmother's feet, sewing an altogether different sampler in light-coloured silks.

As she sews she wonders if she will be able to do it as well as her grandmother did hers. For the greatest pleasure to the child is to get up on a chair in the parlour of the cottage and gaze on a faded sampler that is framed in rosewood above the spinnet, with this legend at the foot: Mary Roberts finished this Sampler; March 1760, aged 10 years.

Old samplers tell us many a tale of how our great-grandmothers lived. They must have been eident bairns. For the average age at which a sampler was wrought was ten years, and many of these show a proficiency in needlework which a child of ten years of age to-day would look upon with open-eyed wonder. To work a sampler, however, in the olden times was as essential to the education of a girl as learning to read or write.

Moreover, a sampler was often a kind of Family Tree—for when a child had finished her sampler proper, it was usual to work in the initials of her nearest relatives on any clear space that was left—the father's family coming first. This was accounted a work of especial honour to the relatives, and the initials of those who were dead were worked in black worsted. Here, for example, is the sampler of little Ann Watt, 1785. We can make out six different initials—I W: IS: IW: HW: MW: IW—each with a crown sewn above. And this great elaborately silk-sewn sampler of Jessie McFarlane, aged 13, 1856, which was picked up in a lumber store as black as coal, and cleaned, as delicate samplers ought to be, with bread crumbs and soft crusts, contains a whole genealogy of thirteen initials —

AMF: MMF: MMF: AMF: AMF: JMF: JMF: FJMF: JB: TB: MB: JT: AT.

And this other was worked by little Marion Teviotdale, an orphan girl in Donaldson's Hospital, whose parents' initials are worked in pathetic black, side by side with those of her matron and teachers.

Every bairn had to work, at least, the letters of the alphabet and the numerals. Then came a border round the whole. After that, the sampler might be elaborated to any extent. Here are figures of all kinds of animals—dogs, stags, peacocks, and birds. The dogs, to be sure, could neither bark nor bite; the stags could never have run ten yards on these legs; and the birds have an invariable habit of sitting on the topmost branch of a conical tree. But what of that? The stitches are perfect, and the sewing of the stag's horns redeems the shilpit beast itself.

Our great-grandmothers were theological before they were in their teens. They were bred on oatmeal, the Catechism, and a few other simplicities. So the serpent of Eden is a very common ornamentation of the sampler. Supplest of all crawling creatures, it invariably coils itself round the forbidden tree like a corkscrew, while Adam and Eve stand by, one on either side, as if they were having their photographs taken, and had nothing whatever to do with apples. Moreover, the Adam and Eve of the samplers are so like one another that we can never tell which to blame!

Here again is a map of England worked by Ann Hope in 1777. Every county is named, with parts of France and Ireland and Scotland as well. Round the coast sail nineteen three-masted schooners all going the same way, favoured by the same wind, and each flying an ensign of prodigious size over the counter. There is a vast amount of stitching on this piece, with four hundred names, and all the lines of latitude and longitude quite correctly marked. Surely Ann Hope was a weary wee bit lass, sitting at the top of her geography class, when she had finished that sampler!

And this of Marget Sanderson in 1815 shows us that she was a dweller in rural parts with garden pleasaunces when the guns of Waterloo were booming over Europe! For, in her representation of peacocks, she invariably makes the young bird stand on the parent bird's back. This is the distinct chronicle of a fact in the natural history of these bonny birds. But although her natural history is correct, how deliciously crazy are her notions of the sea and ships! Here is a cutter that ought never to have been launched, with a sail which an admiral would find it ill to unfurl! But what matter? Marget Sanderson's mellow silken-sewed sampler to-day is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.

But the mottoes are even more interesting than the figures. A motto or a text was essential to the sampler proper.

Here is Jane Craig's motto:—

Know thou this truth, enough for man to know,
Virtue alone is happiness below.

Christina James chose these two sober texts:—

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.

I love them that love Me, and those that seek Me early shall find Me.

A little lass who had too much modesty to sew her own name on her sampler had at least enough serious humour to choose as her motto this:—

When I was young and in my prime
You see how well I spent my time,
And by my sampler you may see
What care my parent took of me.

Parent in the singular tells us very quaintly that in olden times a mother took a personal and painstaking oversight of her girl's sewing and education.

Here, surely, is a pathetic touch on the sampler of Mary Strang! Like all little maids, Mary fixed a date to her sampler. Then the years flew by, and she grew into womanhood. What she was like, who she was, and what kind of romance she had—these things we shall never be able to tell. It is better so. But Mary Strang never changed her name. And still as the years passed over her head, she began to notice that the eye of the curious sometimes strayed to the date on her pretty sampler as it hung in a rosewood frame on her parlour wall. And Mary Strang was grieved. So, to confound the tongues of gossip, she carefully picked out the last two figures in the date, and left it standing thus: 18—. Ah, Mary Strang, it is all one now! But we love the lonely old lady for her human sensibilities, and we respect her reticence as we look on her sampler hanging on the wall.

At what period exactly samplers were first worked we cannot say. But the oldest in the portfolio is dated 1655—an elaborate piece of embroidery with a bit of Celtic interlacing in the centre. There is no name, but the beautiful needlework speaks for itself.

At the very bottom of the portfolio there used to be two or three old Lace Samplers which are of quite a different nature from the ordinary child's sampler. Now these lace samplers hang proudly on the staircase wall in tiny rosewood slips. Each is done in four little squares, which show special lace stitches or various styles of solid darning with fine linen.

Two of them are by Marion Teviotdale of Donaldson's Hospital, and two of them are by that same Ann Watt who, in 1785, worked the sampler with the peacocks carrying their young. It is very plain from this later lace work that Ann Watt, as she grew up, threw her whole heart into her needlework. Probably these four fragments of infinitely fine lacework were put together and bound in blue and pink ribbons without any thought of their value. But in the twentieth century they have stood in a glass case at a great National Exhibition with crowds of nimble-fingered modern women gazing at them and wondering how the mortal fingers of the little ladies ever put them together.

But no longer do little lasses sit working samplers in sweet-scented gardens under the trees. We shall never hear the tinkle of an old spinnet again. Times have changed, and the cottage garden where Mary Roberts sat in the sun is all built over. Meadow Lodge, to which Ann Watt came as a sweet, happy bride, with her samplers carefully folded in a corner of her bridal chest, no longer stands with its windows gleaming in the dawn as the sun rises over Salisbury Crags. But still a sough of those old, far-off, forgotten days comes down the years like a lover's song that is sung at gloaming among the graves. I can hear it as I sit in the gloom of this summer eve, with the warm flower-scented winds coming in at the open window and flickering the lamp-light as it falls on a little red box.

It is the workbox which Ann Watt gave to her little daughter Eliza!

A tiny square red morocco case, with a raised lid, all a-gleam with dim stampings of gold, like a royal casket, seven inches long, five inches broad, and four inches high! That is all. But it gives us clearer visions of the Little Lass that sewed the sampler than anything else. Add to it, four gilt claw feet, two little gilt rings at each side for handles, a gilt lock and key, and below the keyhole another gilt ring to pull out a shallow drawer in front. Inside, it is all lined with pale blue figured silk—oh, so faded now! Little square trays for holding bobbins and buttons; a tiny mother-of-pearl thimble rimmed with gold; two red morocco needlecases, one of which is only an inch and a half long; a pincushion; two miniature reels with gold silk on the one and grey-green on the other; some pearly baby buttons; and one old letter with a faded brown address—that is all!

But the whole precious morsel is fragrant with a sweet, old-world perfume which all the money in the world would never buy. So, with the little Red Box and the old Samplers before me, I have only to close my eyes in the lamplit room, and I hear again the sound of the spinnet, with Mary Roberts singing to herself in the flowery garden as she sits sewing under the trees. It is a whiff of fragrance from the long ago come to sweeten the airs of our over-throng present-day world.


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